Fdd's overnight brief

May 4, 2021

In The News


A fictional series that aired recently on Iranian television portrayed the country’s foreign ministry as infected by Western spies bent on stealing information about nuclear talks with the United States and other world powers. Another show, a documentary, suggested that hapless Iranian nuclear negotiators were strolling into a trap laid by the United States. – Washington Post

A senior employee at the Swiss embassy in Tehran died on Tuesday after falling from a high-rise building where she lived in the north of the city, Iranian news agencies reported. – Reuters

Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned Iran’s imprisonment of several Americans amid a swirl of now-disputed rumors that U.S. and British officials were nearing a deal to pay the regime billions to release a handful of people. – Washington Examiner

Joe Biden’s nascent bid to revive the Iran nuclear deal for a “longer, stronger” diplomatic agreement is already facing deep skepticism and potential hurdles in Congress — including from the president’s own party. – Politico 

A flurry of diplomatic contacts and reports of major progress suggest that indirect talks between the U.S. and Iran may be nearing an agreement. That’s despite efforts by U.S. officials to play down chances of an imminent deal that would bring Washington and Tehran back into compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal. – Associated Press

The U.S. and the U.K. dismissed reports coming out of Iran that they are thrashing out a prisoner exchange deal with Tehran that could see the imminent release of a British-Iranian woman, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, and four Americans, among others. – Associated Press

Top Biden administration officials and U.S. senators crisscrossed the Middle East on Monday, seeking to assuage growing unease among Gulf Arab partners over America’s re-engagement with Iran and other policy shifts in the region. – Associated Press

Officials in the defense establishment have raised doubts about the effectiveness of some operations against Iran. According to a series of reports, in recent years Israel has attacked, among other targets, dozens of tankers smuggling oil from Iran to Syria. These officials think that the potential damage of certain actions outweighs their benefits, and that other ways must be found to halt Iranian entrenchment in the region. – Haaretz

John R. Bolton writes: Zarif’s confessions show why President Biden should abandon his dream of returning to the 2015 nuclear deal, which the United States exited during the Trump administration. In Iran, it is not the negotiators who matter, nor what they say. It’s increasingly the IRGC, which controls the nuclear-weapons and ballistic-missile programs, commands conventional military activities externally, and supports terrorists worldwide. – Washington Post

Seth J. Frantzman writes: Iran has fundamentally shifted from wasting its time selling itself to western audiences, feigning that it is some kind of liberal exotic regime with its own interpretation of gay rights that only denies the Holocaust from time to time, to just ignoring the West. […]Iran’s lack of interest in the West and willingness to drive a harder bargain may, in the end, make the deal more complex. This of course comes in the wake of US meetings with Israeli officials and a desire by the Biden administration to listen more to what. Israel and other US partners and allies have to say. – Jerusalem Post

Seth J. Frantzman writes: Unseating the US by working with Tehran can only go so far because the next step for China is to make its Iran investment pay off. When China reaches that stage, there will be many questions in Tehran about whether they made the right choice to shift to the East and how their behavior may change. – Jerusalem Post


Syria’s higher constitutional court on Monday selected two obscure figures to appear on ballots standing against President Bashar al-Assad in a May 26 election which the West rejects as a farce that will hurt diplomatic efforts to end the civil war. – Reuters

Saudi officials met on Monday with the Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus in an effort to reinstate diplomatic ties, which were cut almost a decade ago, an independent Arabic newspaper reported. – Haaretz 

David Pollock writes: In sum, while U.S. policy in Syria going forward holds very little prospect of ousting Assad, it also has no good reason for legitimizing him. […]Likewise for maintaining tacit support of Israeli operations in Syria. Continuing on this course will maintain U.S. leverage and credibility inside Syria, and beyond, against all hostile actors—ISIS, Assad, and Iran—while giving the Biden Administration a stronger and freer hand in diplomacy with regional and global powers on other pressing matters of concern. – Washington Institute 


Turkish authorities forcibly removed followers of an Islamist figure from three mosques in southern Turkey, saying their prayer gatherings were a provocation against COVID-19 lockdown restrictions. – Reuters

Turkey’s law enforcement authorities have widened their probe into a case involving allegations of defense industry espionage, charging more individuals in addition to dozens detained earlier. – Defense News

Turkey’s top defense procurement official, Ismail Demir, said in an April 30 TV interview that the government will prioritize the production of its indigenous TF-X fighter jet amid an estimated loss of $1.4 billion for local industry following the country’s expulsion from the American-led F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. – Defense News


The United States condemned both Palestinian and Jewish extremist violence on Monday as unrest rocked the West Bank in the aftermath of a shooting attack Sunday at the Tapuah Junction that left two Israelis, – 19-year old seminary students – in serious condition at Rabin Medical Center-Beilinson Campus, Petah Tikva. – Jerusalem Post

A United Nations arbitrations committee is poised to examine a Palestinian Authority complaint that Israel has committed acts of apartheid. – Jerusalem Post

Two balloons carrying suspected explosive devices that were apparently launched from the Gaza Strip landed in southern Israel on Monday, local authorities said in the first such attacks in months. – Times of Israel

Israeli security forces entered a West Bank village early Tuesday and made a number of arrests in connection with a Sunday drive-by shooting attack at a northern West Bank junction that left three Israelis wounded. – Times of Israel

The vehicle that is believed to have been used in a drive-by shooting attack at a northern West Bank junction leaving three Israelis wounded was found outside a nearby Palestinian village on Monday. – Times of Israel

Ra’am party chief Mansour Abbas implicitly condemned on Monday a recent Palestinian terror attack at Tapuach Junction in the West Bank that left three Israeli yeshiva students injured. – Times of Israel

A week after the police barricades were removed from Damascus Gate, and after days of relatively few confrontations between Palestinians and police, the tensions in East Jerusalem are escalating again. The direct cause this time is the fear that Jewish settlers will move into homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in East Jerusalem, after several Palestinian families are facing eviction suffered legal defeats recently. – Haaretz

Editorial: Yet Mr. Abbas’s retreat will likely leave him weaker and less popular than ever — and the Palestinians still stuck with a failed political system. The Biden administration is unlikely to make a priority of this problem. Then-Vice President Joe Biden was a witness to President Barack Obama’s futile attempts to work with Mr. Abbas. But Arab states would be wise to pressure the aging president to step aside for a new generation of leaders better able to compete with Hamas, revive Palestinian government and lay the groundwork for a successful state. – Washington Post

Editorial: A strong government needs to be set up that can govern, can implement its decisions, can stand up to interest groups, and can plan and propose. As the challenges facing Israel continue to mount, a government that is able to function needs to be established posthaste. The outside world is simply not waiting. – Jerusalem Post

Neville Teller writes: In Israel, except for some straight talk in the media and the statement by Lapid, there is little evidence of popular pressure on the government to acknowledge the true nature of the crimes committed by the Ottomans against the Armenian people. But genocide is genocide. Israel should call it out for what it is. – Jerusalem Post


Four Katyusha rockets hit an Iraqi military base that houses U.S. contractors Monday without causing any casualties, Iraq’s military said in a statement. – Associated Press

Iraq is considering buying ExxonMobil’s (XOM.N) stake in the southern West Qurna 1 oilfield through state-owned Basra Oil Co (BOC), the country’s oil minister said on Monday. – Reuters

Naufel Alhassan writes: Efforts to achieve such comprehensive reforms will likely face political obstacles and legal restrictions, and may even require constitutional amendments in some areas. […]Toppling the statue of the former Iraqi dictator seemed easy at first. But raising its feet from the base proved far more complicated, and in the end it required the intervention of military vehicles and the use of ropes — and only came after a great effort. Will the revitalization of the political process also require complicated and dangerous surgery? Or will mistakes be corrected and reviewed before it is too late? We can only hope and pray it’s the latter. – Middle East Institute


Lebanon and Israel resumed U.S.-mediated talks on Tuesday over a dispute about their Mediterranean Sea border that has held up hydrocarbon exploration in the potentially gas-rich area, an official Lebanese source said. – Reuters

Simon Henderson writes: Israel and Lebanon’s sharply differing views on maritime boundaries represent a significant challenge to U.S. diplomacy, which has quietly encouraged development of offshore oil and gas in the East Mediterranean with some success in recent years. […]But a confrontation, perhaps accompanied by threats of force by Hezbollah, could deter other investors from committing to projects off Israel’s coast—which may be part of Beirut’s motivation. The task ahead for American mediators will not be easy. – Washington Institute 

Aya Majzoub writes: The authorities should also make it clear that attacks against media workers will not be tolerated, and that anyone responsible for such attacks — non-state actors and security forces alike — will be held accountable through swift and transparent proceedings. […]At the end of the day, Lebanon needs to decide what kind of country it wants to be: one that like some others in the region controls and dictates public discourse, or a beacon of tolerance and a center for lively debate and discussion. – Middle East Institute

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia’s plans to balance its finances are making good progress but a slower pace of adjustment could be considered this year to support the recovery from the coronavirus crisis, the International Monetary Fund said on Monday. – Reuters

Saudi Arabia’s king appointed Faisal al-Ibrahim as minister of economy and planning, state news agency SPA said on Monday. – Reuters

Areej Al-Sadhan writes: We need our elected representatives and the Biden administration to insist on Abdulrahman’s release so that he may be returned to our family in California. In the meantime, we ask for confirmation of his safety and well-being, and that he be allowed to communicate with our family. We implore U.S. officials to raise these concerns with their Saudi counterparts both in support of our interests as constituents and to stand on the right side of justice. – Washington Post

Middle East & North Africa

Egypt has signed a contract with France to buy 30 Rafale fighter jets, its defence ministry said in a statement early on Tuesday, in a deal that investigative website Disclose said on Monday was worth 3.75 billion euro ($4.5 billion). – Reuters

Turkey wants to improve its economic relations with Egypt as it pushes to repair diplomatic ties between the regional powers, Trade Minister Mehmet Mus said on Monday, ahead of a visit by a Turkish delegation to Cairo this week. – Reuters

Libya’s top diplomat Monday called for the departure of foreign forces and mercenaries from the North African country as it heads toward elections later this year. Najla al-Manqoush, foreign minister of Libya’s interim government, urged Turkey to implement U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding the repatriation of more than 20,000 foreign fighters and mercenaries from Libya. – Associated Press

Walter Russell Mead writes: Given President Biden’s determination to return to some form of the JCPOA, guardedly pursuing negotiations with Tehran while mending fences with allies and strengthening the Arab-Israeli coalition is the most hopeful feasible course. […]Washington is unlikely to transform Iran into a peaceful and friendly state. Yet focused and determined American policy—aligned with key local allies—can and will frustrate Iranian attempts to overturn the current regional order. – Wall Street Journal

Korean Peninsula

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Monday that North Korea needed to decide whether it wanted to engage diplomatically to see if there were ways to achieve the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsular. – Reuters

While North Korea’s barrage of complaints about U.S. President Joe Biden’s policies over the weekend might appear to be ratcheting up tensions, some signs suggest Pyongyang hasn’t ruled out diplomacy with the new team in Washington. – Reuters

China’s U.N. ambassador, Zhang Jun, said on Monday he hopes a U.S. review of North Korea policy will place more emphasis on dialogue, instead of pressure. – Reuters

The United States and South Korea on Monday reaffirmed their alliance and its role in Indo-Pacific security, a U.S. spokesman said after a meeting in London between U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and South Korea’s Chung Eui-Yong. – Reuters


China’s U.N. ambassador on Monday urged stronger diplomatic efforts to resolve the confrontation in Myanmar since the Feb. 1 military coup, warning that further violence could lead to a chaotic situation “and even a civil war.” – Associated Press

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in an interview that aired on Sunday that China had recently acted “more aggressively abroad” and was behaving “increasingly in adversarial ways.” – Reuters

Former UK prime minister David Cameron has all but given up on his plan of launching a $1bn UK-China investment fund after relations nosedived between London and Beijing, according to people briefed on the situation. – Financial Times

A major investment deal reached in December between the European Union and China — after seven years of painful negotiations — may end up being the high-water mark for ties that are quickly deteriorating again. – Bloomberg

One hundred days have passed, and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s toughest moves on China so far have been two visits to the Indo-Pacific region and a task force working to deliver findings on possible policy changes sometime this summer. – Washington Examiner

China is facing backlash after a social media account linked to the ruling Communist Party shared a post mocking India’s struggles to contain COVID-19. – The Hill

Clara Ferreira Marques writes: Russia, suffering even greater demographic pressure, holds a warning. Concern over population decline has resulted in improved maternal health care and help for families. But women have also seen reproductive and other rights walked back. China has prepared for this challenge for decades. A shrinking population is inevitable. Allowing even wider inequities to open up is not. – Bloomberg

Patty-Jane Geller and Peter Brookes write: Beijing is clearly revealing its grand ambitions through its unprecedented nuclear modernization programs, inserting more uncertainty and risk into an already challenging international security environment. These forces will enable China to improve its ability to coerce the U.S. and restrain response options. As a result, the United States must carefully consider the growing Chinese threat as it pursues its own nuclear modernization to ensure that U.S. nuclear deterrence remains strong. – Heritage Foundation


The Pentagon on Monday said “small harassing attacks” in Afghanistan over the weekend had not had a significant impact on the United States’ military withdrawal from the country. – Reuters

Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has warned of “huge consequences” of President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan. – BBC

Michael McCaul and Ryan C. Crocker write: When America pulls out of a conflict zone at the wrong time, it creates a vacuum in which the terrorist threat grows again. That, in turn, eventually requires a re-entry of forces to keep Americans safe. So begins yet another forever war. The ill-advised decision to pull out of Afghanistan may do just that. But by ensuring proper guardrails are in place, we have a chance to limit the fallout. – New York Times

Gary J. Schmitt writes: Staying in Afghanistan, with the support of allies and partners, would not be an easy decision for sure. But Biden won his election because a large segment of the population wanted someone in the Oval Office who would behave presidentially, which used to mean being willing to make hard choices and explaining to both the public and Congress why those choices are in the long-term interest of the country. – American Enterprise Institute


Australia opened embassies in the Marshall Islands and French Polynesia on Tuesday as Canberra accelerates its efforts to counter growing competition from China for influence in the Pacific. – Reuters

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will attend the Shangri-La Dialogue Asian security summit due to be held in Singapore next month, organisers said, after the annual meeting was cancelled last year due to the coronavirus pandemic. – Reuters

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said on Tuesday the government was working on “fake news” legislation to tackle “misinformation, hatred and lies,” as worries grow over media freedoms in the global financial hub. – Reuters

The Philippine foreign minister on Monday demanded in an expletive-laced Twitter message that China’s vessels get out of disputed waters, the latest exchange in a war of words with Beijing over the South China Sea. – Reuters

Blasts from at least one parcel bomb in Myanmar have killed five people, including an ousted lawmaker and three police officers who had joined a civil disobedience movement opposing military rule, media reported on Tuesday. – Reuters

Finance ministers and central bank governors from ASEAN, China, Japan and South Korea on Monday vowed to strengthen regional financial cooperation while providing continued support for countries hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. – Reuters

Britain and India will start negotiations for a full free trade deal in the autumn, British trade minister Liz Truss said on Tuesday. – Reuters

China urged the Philippines on Tuesday to observe “basic etiquette” and eschew megaphone diplomacy after the southeast Asian nation’s foreign minister used an expletive-laced Twitter message to demand that China’s vessels leave disputed waters. – Reuters

A Japanese journalist arrested in Myanmar has been charged with spreading fake news, the country’s Japanese embassy has said. Yuki Kitazumi is the first foreign journalist known to be charged since the coup. – BBC

Taiwan says it is investigating whether a man from mainland China managed to cross the highly militarised Taiwan Strait in a small rubber dinghy. – BBC 

President Biden has notified Congress the administration is extending a waiver allowing U.S. assistance to Azerbaijan that was originally restricted over Baku’s conflict with its neighbor Armenia and tension over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. – The Hill

Michael Rubin writes: Blinken, with one fell swoop, has not only undercut the moral clarity and emphasis on human rights tied to the Armenian genocide resolution, but he has also signaled not only to Azerbaijan but also to Turkey, Russia, Iran, and other aggressors that the State Department stands for nothing and U.S. law without meaning. Moral equivalency is not sophisticated. For the United States’ position in the world, it can be disastrous. – The National Interest


Britain will on Tuesday seek to agree decisive action from G7 partners to protect democracies against global threats like those posed by China and Russia. – Reuters

Russia’s military occupied two new sites in the south of Armenia near the Azeri border as an “additional security guarantee” following last year’s conflict, Russian news agencies reported, citing Armenia’sacting prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan. – Reuters

The European Union has summoned Russia’s ambassador after Moscow blacklisted eight EU officials in retaliation for the bloc’s decision to impose sanctions over the imprisonment of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. – Associated Press

Editorial: In dispatching his secretary of state to Kyiv, Biden hopes to repair the damage done by President Donald Trump’s attempts to extort political favors from the Ukrainian government. […]Putin’s military buildup on Ukraine’s borders is an act of intimidation against a vulnerable neighbor — and a test of Western resolve. Unflinching support for Ukraine’s right to self-defense is the best way to prevent these provocations from leading to war. – Bloomberg


The global policy trend of heavy fiscal stimulus, led by the U.S., faces a test case in Southern Europe. Italy, Greece and Spain, hit hard in Europe’s sovereign-debt crisis a decade ago, are once again running big budget deficits and planning to spend on a grand scale to revamp their economies. – Wall Street Journal

U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has already taken bold and welcome steps, British foreign minister Dominic Raab said on Monday, speaking after a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. – Reuters

Northern’ Ireland’s biggest party was set for its first ever leadership election after its Westminster chief Jeffrey Donaldson threw his hat into the ring on Monday, promising to focus on the divisive issue of post-Brexit trade barriers. – Reuters


The Democratic Republic of Congo’s presidency on Monday ordered military and police officers to take over civil authorities in two regions that have been declared under a “state of siege”. – Agence France-Presse

Chad’s transitional military council pressed ahead Monday with solidifying its hold on power after announcing a new government over the weekend that kept key ministries in the hands of allies. – Associated Press

Paris prosecutors on Monday requested the end of a years-long investigation of accusations of involvement of France’s peacekeeping force in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda in which an estimated 800,000 people were slaughtered. – Associated Press

The Americas

Nearly three months after Canada declared the Proud Boys a terrorist entity, the Canadian chapter of the militant far-right group claims it has “officially dissolved.” But analysts warned that the organization could still rebrand, and its radicalized members could find new homes. – Washington Post

At least 19 people were killed and hundreds more injured during days of protests across Colombia, in which tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets to demonstrate against a tax overhaul meant to fill a pandemic-related fiscal hole. – New York Times

Top US officials have expressed their concern over the removal from office of El Salvador’s attorney general and five judges from the Central American country’s Supreme Court. – BBC 

Claude Barfield writes: The goal here is not to disparage increasing the vital funding resources for the U.S. innovation system, but rather to caution that in this brave new world of federal largesse, substantial attention should be paid to agency culture and the management skills necessary to translate frontier research into viable, competitive technologies. – The Hill


More than 30 of Europe’s largest banks and credit card processors are trying to create a payments giant capable of shattering a US-dominated “oligopoly”. – Financial Times

Members of Congress said last week they are worried about the Department of Defense’s ability to combat information operations and disinformation campaigns. – C4ISRNET

The Israeli hackers-for-hire firm NSO Group promised it would publish a transparency report starting this June. The announcement from last week comes after a coalition of human rights groups published an open letter to the company and its investors calling out NSO for failing to comply with human rights disclosure practices. – Haaretz

David Barno and Nora Bensahel write: We have called for an independent U.S. Cyber Force before, but the ever-increasing reliance on the cyber domain and the stunning nature of recent cyber attacks now make this even more urgent. […]The existing services are far too invested in preparing for warfare in their respective domains to think creatively and independently about ways to address this entirely new type of threat. Creating a new U.S. Cyber Force would help ensure that the vital oxygen upon which the U.S. military depends is always available in every future military operation. – War on the Rocks 

Danny Steed writes: Despite this accurate recognition and the broadly correct direction of travel laid out, there is much work to be done to bridge the aspirations of the document itself into capabilities, coherent actions, and behaviors that move from recognizing cyber as new element of national power to actually developing it in ways that secure both British interests and the integrity of cyberspace as a whole. Britain’s desire to cement itself as a responsible, democratic cyber power needs careful conceptual construction if it is to become more than a mere Whitehall soundbite. – War on the Rocks


The Marine Corps recently suspended a two-star general as it continues an investigation into last year’s fatal Amphibious Assault Vehicle accident that left eight Marines and one sailor dead. – USNI News

The surface navy community is rolling out a new way to track and assess sailors’ experience and proficiency in combat skills – with the promise that commanders could tailor future training and build better watch bills – through a new Surface Warfare Combat Training Continuum (SWCTC) effort that is wrapping up a pilot program and will hit the fleet this summer. – USNI News

The Marine fighter squadron that will be part of the largest F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter deployment to date landed aboard the U.K. Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth (R08) on Sunday, the U.S. Marine Corps announced. – USNI News

The Pentagon’s Silicon Valley outreach arm will soon choose a vendor to secure cloud access points to increase collaboration between the Defense Department and outside companies. – C4ISRNET

The U.S. Army’s Northrop Grumman-manufactured next-generation protection system for its fleet of helicopters has been cleared for full-rate production, according to an April 30 Pentagon announcement. – Defense News

The amphibious assault vehicle mishap that killed eight Marines and a sailor in July 2020 has spurred many “lessons learned” that leaders say will prevent anything so “tragic” from happening again. But along with improved safety measures and redundancies, the accident also showed the Marine Corps that it may no longer be honed for amphibious operations, Marine Corps leaders told Congress on Monday. – Defense One

Barnett S. Koven and Chris Mason write: The ability to support and sustain armed resistance in occupied and contested countries is an essential option for effectively competing with today’s great-power competitors. Great-power competition is underway all around the globe, and Special Forces should be revitalizing the skills and acquiring the specialized equipment needed for operating on this “new,” old battleground. – War on the Rocks

Iskander Rehman writes: Protracted competition with China must be tied to domestic political renewal — jolting a complacent and polarized American populace into recognizing its shortcomings, rediscovering its first principles, and striving toward a more perfect union. Absent such a collective restorative effort, the great American experiment risks falling prey to the “way of faction” so powerfully depicted by one of Rome’s greatest historians. – War on the Rocks  

Maj. Gen. Larry Stutzriem writes: For those who remain skeptical of the F-35, what else is there? To kill or radically curtail the program now — one of the pathways suggested by the GAO — would cede billions of dollars in sunk costs, create a requirements crisis, and lead to a new program that would cost more and take longer to field. […]Get real and solve the challenges. The United States and our allies need the F-35 to win. – The Hill

Long War

Suspected jihadists killed around 30 people in an attack Monday in eastern Burkina Faso, local and security sources said, in what would be one of the worst such attacks in the country’s history. – Agence France-Presse

More than a dozen people, including seven soldiers, were killed by Islamist militants in an attack in northeast Nigeria, four sources told Reuters. – Reuters

Christina Cottiero writes: Benin’s contentious election coincides with rising threats from extremist and criminal groups in neighboring Burkina Faso, Niger and Nigeria. North of Benin, groups linked to al-Qaeda and groups that pledged loyalty to the Islamic State stage attacks not far from the border with Burkina Faso. To Benin’s northeast, networks of bandits and kidnappers operate in northwestern Nigeria, where the expansion of Boko Haram remains a threat. – Washington Post